A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Charles Crichton | 1hr 48min

What looks at first glance to be a reunion of sorts between two members of Monty Python only delivers on that promise in the final act, and in a relatively brief moment. The restraint is admirable – John Cleese and Michael Palin may be two of the greatest British comedians of their generation, but A Fish Called Wanda is far from a rehash of the chemistry which launched them to fame in their younger years. Top billing here is also given to Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, both of whom display a pair of comedic acting chops that see them go toe-to-toe against Cleese and Palin, and often come out on top. This blend of dry English humour and the brazen smarminess of American comedy makes for a delicious mix of character interactions, setting up the patriotic egos of both countries and then knocking them down a few pegs purely through their hilarious, bitter distaste for each other.

Kevin Kline often lurking in the background, setting up some great visual gags.

When a plot to rob a bank quickly devolves into treachery and back-stabbing, the four thieves at its centre find themselves in direct competition with each other to recover the stashed diamonds. Finding himself mixed up in this chaotic sequence of events is Archie Leach, an attorney who falls for one of these felons, Wanda Gershwitz, while defending her co-conspirator in court. The cultural clash is evident – in an early scene we watch the two Americans, Wanda and her lover, Otto, getting hot and heavy in bed, comically intercut with Archie’s own dull, dispassionate nightly routine of clipping his toenails, getting undressed, and then slipping into his single bed, separate from his wife. Charles Crichton is clearly a much better director of actors than he is a fully-rounded filmmaker, but in moments such as these he clearly delights in manipulating our perspective of the characters and their relationships, finding rhythms in the comedy beyond what is already present in the performances and screenplay.

Crichton’s creative camerawork literally turning this scene on its head.

And then there is the plotting, so formally intricate in its farcical construction of lies, secrets, and MacGuffins, but never letting these characters stray from their idiosyncratic pursuits of clear-cut objectives. Through the frequent pairings of characters who haven’t yet met, there is a freshness that is kept alive in the emerging dynamics. What sort of friction will we see when the insecure, Anglophobic thief Otto rubs up against Wendy, a posh, judgmental Brit? What about when the usually-patient Archie needs to extract important information from Ken, who possesses an intense stutter? How far can Otto’s jealousy be pushed when his scheme to recover stolen goods necessitates his girlfriend seducing another man? What A Fish Called Wanda ultimately delivers from this delightfully ridiculous onslaught of petty conflicts is an ensemble of Americans and Brits frustrated by the obstinance of those who stand in their way, not realising that they too possess the exact same qualities, and eventually being driven to the brink of sanity in their dogged, selfish pursuits.

A Fish Called Wanda is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.

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